Southerners rarely while away their leisure hours by contemplating Yankees, for there is no point in thinking of unpleasant things if one is not obliged to do so. Yet the practice does have value; to some extent, at least, we are defined by those attributes which set us apart from others, and sometimes we can be made aware of such attributes only by observing people who do not share them. Another virtue of thinking about Yankees, in the long run perhaps a more important one, is that it serves to remind us that they have repeatedly tried to make us over in their own image. Indeed, though it may seem that they have been off our backs since the demise of the civil rights movement, their latest campaign to reform us is actually well under way.
What is there about us that has made us so offensive to them? Or, conversely, what is there about them that has compelled them to meddle in our affairs? The late great Richard M. Weaver, in The Southern Tradition at Bay, addressed himself to analyzing the qualities that distinguish the South from North, and for the nineteenth century he was perfectly on target. “The North had Tom Paine and his postulates assuming the virtuous inclinations of man,” Weaver wrote; “the South had Burke and his doctrine of human fallibility and of the organic nature of society.” The North embraced rationalism and egalitarianism; the South had a “deep suspicion of all theory, perhaps of intellect,” and clung to a hierarchical and deferential social order. The North bowed down before science and material progress; the South “persisted in regarding science as a false messiah,” and remained into “our own time” (the 1940s) “the last non-materialist civilization in the Western World.”
Penetrating as Weaver’s analysis was, however, it is accurate for only one phase of Yankee history. The Yankees were the way they were long before they began to worship the Almighty Dollar, and their intellectual heirs are still that way even though most of them now espouse socialism or some approximation of it. The psyche of the Yankee—by which I do not mean all Northerners, but only of seventeenth-century New England Puritans and their descendants, both genetic and ideological—has roots that run deep, and ultimately to the Yankee’s ever-changing concept of the nature of God; thus it is that, in regard to the shaping of the New England character, various errors, heresies, nay even blasphemies, figure prominently. To get a handle on the Yankee, it is helpful to begin with his original Calvinism, and especially with the doctrine of predestination: The belief that most men are doomed and a few are elected for salvation, not by faith or works or any other act of human volition, but only in accordance with a preordained and unknowable divine plan. It might seem that the premise precludes speculation by the puny human intellect, that is logical disputation and inspires unlimited arrogance.
For instance, during the seventeenth century the prevailing orthodoxy was that those who were chosen for salvation would lead visibly pious lives, but it could be argued, as Anne Hutchinson did argue, that if the grace of God were in a person it made no difference how he behaved on earth. Such a doctrine was subversive both of community-enforced morality and of community-enforced order, and could not be tolerated. Hutchinson and her followers were banished, as were others who deviated or dissented in any way; and yet deviation and dissent were endemic.
That is the first thing to understand about the Yankee: He is a doctrinal puritan, characterized by what William G. McLaughlin has called pietistic perfectionism. Unlike the Southerner, he is constitutionally incapable of letting things be, of adopting a live-and-let-live attitude. No departure from his version of Truth is tolerable, and thus when he finds himself amidst sinners, as he invariably does, he must either purge and purify the community or join with his fellow saints and go into the wilderness to establish a New Jerusalem. In other words, he must reform society or secede from it; and though he has long since been thoroughly secularized, the compulsion remains as strong in the twentieth century as it was in the seventeenth.
A second and related characteristic of the Yankee is that, as others have pointed out, he is a gnostic. Adherents of this heresy in ancient times regarded themselves as privy to “knowledge of the divine mysteries reserved to an elite;” the original puritan counterpart was the Elect. The essence of gnosticism as a mindset is the absolute, unquestioning certainty that one is possessed of the Truth. Now it may be objected that there is nothing peculiar to the Yankee about this, for many and possibly most Southerners are unquestioning in their religious faith. But there are profound differences. One is that Southerners have always confined their belief in their certain knowledge to a few simple points of religious faith which are accessible to all, whereas the content of the Yankee’s Truth was esoteric and perennially shifting, even before it was secularized.
The example of the Reverend Aaron Burr (father of the political scoundrel of the same name) is instructive. In his youth Burr believed in free will and engaged in a great deal of uneasy negotiation with God, having “great Terrours and horrors from a guilty Conscience and the Fears of Hell” and obtaining “Relief by Promises and Resolutions.” In college he reasoned himself “into a More thorough Reformation,” read a number of suitable books, and “soon began to be well pleas’d with my Self;” at that stage he pitied the contemptible “Ignorance” of the evangelicals around him. In time, however, he had a conversion experience, abandoned the Arminian notion of free will, and adopted “the Calvinistical Doctrine;” and though he confessed that parts of that doctrine were beyond his ken he nonetheless had “an inward Sense of these Truths.”
Burr’s transition from one certainty to another took place during the Great Awakening, which represented a profound break with seventeenth-century dogma; a generation later the Yankees embraced totalitarian republicanism and thought thereby to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Lest this seem a trifle exaggerated, even to confirmed Yankee-haters, I submit the following words from John Adams, written on the eve of independence. Republican government, Adams wrote, is superior to all others, if its principles are pure. But it “is only to be supported by pure Religion or austere Morals. Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics. There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power, and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty.” This public passion, he added, “must be Superior to all private Passions. Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy to sacrifice their private Pleasures, Passions, and Interests, nay their private Friendships and dearest Connections, when they stand in Competition with the Rights of Society.”
Before the end of the century that same John Adams was writing with the same dogmatic certainty that limited monarchy was the best guarantor of “real liberty,” and his fellow Yankees were simultaneously embracing Unitarianism and materialism with equal self-assurance. And so on, generation after generation, even unto our own benighted epoch, in which Ivy League professors and presidents solemnly assure us that there are no inborn differences between men and women and that people who object to homosexuality and abortion-on-demand are religious fanatics. They are always wrong—or at least they cannot, by definition, have been right more than once—and yet they are always utterly certain and utterly impervious to argument.
Another difference between Southern and Yankee “certain knowledge” is more subtle and more important. The religious Southerner’s conviction is normally a source of inner peace and contentment to him; and though a spirit of Christian charity may inspire him to share the joys of his faith, and even to spread the Gospel around the globe, he is devoid of the urge to force his faith upon others. Moreover, Southern missionaries have usually been interested only in saving souls, not in remaking societies. Not so with the Yankees, and in a brilliant book called The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience and the Self in Early America, historian Philip Greven has analyzed the reasons. After predestinarianism went out of vogue in colonial New England, the new orthodoxy was that grace was a free gift from God, bestowed upon those He decided to save. As Jonathan Edwards preached in a sermon on“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” people “have no refuge, nothing to take hold of; all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and unconvenented, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God.” Total submission and surrender, as Greven summarizes it, “were the only terms acceptable to God.”
Quite apart from the lack of logic in such a theology (if God saves souls capriciously, it cannot matter to Him whether people are submissive or not) and apart from the presumptuousness (in insisting that God will save only those who adopt a particular stance and that one knows what that stance is), this was not an easy message even for Yankees to swallow, for abject submission does not come naturally to man. To give nature a helping hand, parents systematically (and brutally) dedicated themselves to “breaking the will” of their children. And thus, Greven suggests, though Yankees were taught to suppress all anger, “feelings of anger and of rage, of resistance and of rebellion surged inside them.” Moreover, they projected their inadmissible feelings of anger within the self upon the outside world. Consequently, “by becoming soldiers for Christ and warring against the unregenerated people of the world,” they could “vent their anger and aggression on people who were neither their parents nor their God but who, nevertheless, by symbolizing both sin and authority, provided legitimate outlets for the hostility and rage suppressed so long.” Thus Cromwell is the Yankee’s prototype: seek the heathen out, give him a chance to save himself by embracing the prevailing truth, and if he rejects the opportunity then run him through with a bayonet.
That predisposition was reinforced by a related aspect of what the late Perry Miller called the New England Mind. One of the forms that ancient gnosticism took was Manichaeism—the belief in two gods, a god of light and pure goodness and a god of darkness and pure evil—and a form of Manichaeism became firmly rooted in the Yankee character. In purely theological terms, of course, a variety of Manichaeism is also central to the religious beliefs of many Southerners: The human soul is a battleground in which God and the Devil perpetually contend for supremacy. But as with gnosticism, there are fundamental differences. To Southerners, the struggle against evil is spiritual and internal. To Yankees, evil has been secularized at least since the early eighteenth century, and it has always been externalized.
The externalization of evil was powerfully characterized by Nathaniel Hawthorne in a penetrating and prophetic allegorical tale called “Earth’s Holocaust.” At the beginning of the story, the world has become so overburdened with fraudulent and despicable things that its people decide to burn them on a huge plain in the west. First they throw into the flames all trappings of monarchy, nobility, hereditary distinctions, and military honors. In vain, one man protests that the fire is “consuming all that marked your advance from barbarism or that could have prevented your relapse thither…In abolishing the majestic distinctions of rank, society loses not only its grace, but its steadfastness.” He is hooted down, and then the crowds, isolating another evil, bring to the fire all the liquor in the world. Next come tea and coffee and tobacco, then fashionable clothing, then all the symbols of family ties and love between the sexes; then come the weapons and other instruments of war, and then all the means of capital punishment, followed by the title deeds to all property. At that point a “modern philosopher” declares that it is necessary to “get rid of the weight of dead men’s thought which has hitherto pressed so hard on the living intellect,” and into the inferno go all of the world’s books and pamphlets. Finally, all the trappings of organized religion are thrown into the flames, so that now “the wood-paths shall be the aisles of our cathedral; the firmament itself shall be its ceiling.”
At the end of the story, the last hangman, the last thief, the last murderer, and the last toper on earth are commiserating over the end of wickedness in the now purified world. But a stranger of “fearfully dark” complexion and eyes that glow redder than the bonfire shows up and urges them to be of good cheer, for “you shall see good days yet. There is one thing that these wiseacres have forgotten to throw into the fire, and without which all the rest of the conflagration is just nothing at all.” Asked by the last murderer what that was, the stranger replies, “What but the human heart itself?” And he adds, “unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery—the same old shapes, or worse ones—which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes.”
Hawthorne understood his Yankee neighbors better than they understood themselves.
There is one more crucial feature of the Yankee character that is ultimately theological in origin, and we shall turn to it in a moment. First, however, it will be helpful to take a brief but sweeping look at the Yankees’ record as meddlers. For their first century and a half they pretty much minded their own business, which is to say one another’s business. Then the Revolution and the establishment of the government under the Constitution brought them into contact with Southerners, and though Yankees and Southerners cooperated in bringing about independence, mutual antagonisms were not long in surfacing. For a considerable time Yankees were outnumbered in the national arena; and during the presidencies of Jefferson and Madison, when Southerners thoroughly dominated the federal government, New Englanders indulged themselves in a succession of secession movements.
But they bred like flies and they spread westward, infesting an area from Salem, Massachusetts, to Salem, Oregon, and a dozen Salems and New Salems in between. Yankees formed the backbone of the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, and it is unnecessary to rehearse here what that meant. There is, however, one important point to be made—one which, though obvious, few historians have been wiling to make. The Yankees perceived slavery as an evil and stamped it out without giving any serious thought to the consequences. It hardly occurred to them that the former slaves needed preparation if they were to bear the awesome burdens and responsibilities of freedom. Consequently, the blacks were the principal victims of the Civil War, though the white South, too, lay devastated.
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Yankees abandoned their work of Reconstructing the South and turned outwards, with a view toward uplifting the remainder of mankind. The Reverend Josiah Strong, a Congregationalist minister, expressed their mood: “This race of unequalled energy, with all the majesty of numbers and the might of wealth behind it—the representative, let us hope, of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization—having developed peculiarly aggressive traits calculated to impress its institutions upon mankind, will spread itself over the earth.” Out went the missionaries, carrying the Truth to the African, the Malay, the heathen Chinese, and teaching those shameless wretches to wear shoes, to cover their nakedness with the products of the busy industrial plants of New England.
During the same epoch a far more sinister form of imperialism was also developing, and that was in the area of higher education. In antebellum times, though the South had lagged behind the North in primary and secondary education it had actually surpassed the North in the number (and possibly the quality) of its colleges. Those colleges declined after the war, however, and the normal school movement benefited the North much more than the South. More importantly, this was an age in which college education was being revolutionized by the introduction of the graduate school: thenceforth, the academic professions would become virtually monopolized by products of the graduate schools. The graduate schools, in turn, would be dominated by the Ivy League colleges and their graduates; their only serious rivals were Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago, both of which were thoroughly Yankeeized. Hegemony over the graduate schools, together with a similar hold over the law schools and other professional schools, enabled Yankees to determine what was taught and how it was taught through most of the twentieth century.
By that means the ranks of the Yankees were swollen by recruits from other ethnic groups and from other sections, including the South. Nor were the converts simply scalawags, for the pressures against dissenters in the groves of academe were enormous. (I speak from personal experience: I put in six years in Madison and nine in the Ivy League, and I assure you I can understand what Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams went through.)
It is here that the last main theology-derived Yankee characteristic becomes relevant: the Yankees are millennialists. Once again, so are many Southerners, and once again the differences between the two varieties are vast. Traditional millennialism of the sort adhered to by several Southern denominations is based upon the apocalyptic books of Daniel in the Old Testament and Revelations in the New. The first prophesies a steady worsening of life on earth over the course of a thousand years and through a succession of four kingdoms, each more evil than the last, then the sudden reversal of the course of earthly history by divine will and the establishment of God’s earthly kingdom under a ruler called the son of Man. The prophesies in Revelations are more complex but again things grow steadily worse until history is reversed by God, the ruler of His kingdom now being Christ in His second coming.
An entirely different kind of millennialism, usually known as progressive millennialism, emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and that is the kind embraced by the Yankee. In this version there was no need for God to reverse the course of human history, for history represented a progression of human triumphs over evil: When the thousand years were done, man himself would have established God’s kingdom on earth. Jonathan Edwards, in the 1740s, reckoned that man had made it about three quarters of the way through, and thus that the millennium would arrive toward the end of the twentieth century. In Edwards’ time, of course, progress toward the heavenly city was directed by God, man acting merely as the instrument of His will; but it was only a matter of time before people of the Yankee persuasion would become convinced that they could build the city without God’s help. After they became so convinced, they began to notice and inform the world that God was dead.
I said at the outset that the Yankees’ latest campaign to remake us in their own image is well under way. It is easy to believe otherwise, for Southerners qua Southerners are clearly not under such specific pressure as in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Moreover, Yankees have not of late been pointing the accusing finger at us, but have indeed been chanting mea culpa. But these signs are misleading. As for the absence of specific pressure, one need only check the Yankees reform agenda—a host of particular items which add up to a wholesale onslaught against conventional morality, the family, and religion to perceive that they have in mind a more drastic overhaul of our society than any that Thaddeus Stevens ever dreamed of.
The other matter, the mea culpa syndrome, is subtle and convoluted. In the first place, the Yankee has always been uncomfortable when times are good, for then it appears that the millennium may be near, in which case there will be no further need for his reforming services. In such circumstances he looks frantically for evils and injustices, so as to reassure himself that there is a great deal left to be done; and if he blames himself for what is wrong he thereby stakes out a claim to be the one who must rectify it. (A guilt trip is an ego trip.) In the second place, the recent breast-beating has tended to center on the environment, and in all candor it must be admitted that Yankees have been far more skillful in mucking up the environment than we have.
And that leads us to a final point. I believe that somewhere, deep in the innermost recesses of their atrophied souls, Yankees know that they truly have botched things, and truly are plagued with guilt. That, I think, is the bottom line: the Yankee hates himself, and he hates his heritage.
And why does he hate us? Because we do not hate ourselves and we treasure ours.
Forrest McDonald (1927-2016) was Distinguished Research Professor of History at the University of Alabama.
This blog post has been reproduced with the permission of The Imaginative Conservative. The original blog post can be found here. The views expressed by the author and The Imaginative Conservative are not necessarily endorsed by this organization and are simply provided as food for thought from Intellectual Takeout.